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Thursday, Mar 18, 2010
A real world fashion designer finds the Project Runway Wii game pretty lacking: "The life has been sucked out of me. I came in with all this energy and now I'm just sad."

I will admit to one and all an inordinate fondness for Project Runway. Along with Top Chef, it’s one of the few reality shows I watch. What I love about both shows is that they focus the spotlight on skilled and talented individuals who are actually making things with both their hands and their imaginations. I can’t sew a button, and while I can cook along with a recipe well enough, I’m not inventive or inspired in the kitchen. I appreciate the contestants on these shows because they’ve got demonstrable, difficult to acquire talents.


Any developer setting out to simulate a creative endeavor through an accessible-to-all video game faces a steep challenge. Certainly you can’t expect players of Project Runway on the Wii to create patterns and sew them together from scratch; there needs be some measure of metaphor involved, and I’m fine with that. Even so, I decided that maybe I wasn’t the perfect judge for such a product. After all, while I watch the show, I prefer my games to involve guns or magic spells. I decided to call upon the expertise of a friend of mine, a real world fashion designer who even studied design at Parsons, the school where the show’s contestants do their work. She wishes to remain a little anonymous (you never know when the vengeance of Heidi Klum et al might strike down upon you), so we’ll call her Ms. C.


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Wednesday, Mar 17, 2010
There is nothing more elegant than punching a button and watching something die.

Taking at least one thing off before going out, the little black dress, the black tie, the shotgun. What do these things have in common?  Obviously, their elegance.


I have been groping around for years for a way to convey to others the pleasure that I get from using the shotgun in a first person shooter.  And it has finally come to me, it is the very definition of elegance.


Tagged as: doom, doom 2, elegance, fps, shotgun
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Tuesday, Mar 16, 2010

One of the growing trends in cultural criticism on the internet is the YouTube video. Acting as a well organized visual presentation, a quick five or ten minute video to review pop culture is slowly becoming one of the most effective forms of critique out there. Like citing a passage from a book or play, critics can splice in a sequence of film and then break it down for the audience. There’s a lot of sub-par stuff out there, but when a capable film editor gets to work on it, the results are impressive. RedLetterMedia is the handle of a YouTube user whose video review of The Phantom Menace has recently cracked the million viewers mark, while his Star Trek reviews are all well into the six digit number of views. Striking a careful balance between being informative and entertaining, his videos delve into the nebulous realm of sci-fi film analysis with great results.


Each video features the voiceover of Mr. Plinkett. Sounding like a weird sexist nerd serial killer, Plinkett’s crazed mumblings are mixed with creepy asides and visual gags that give you something to laugh at while the video makes a larger point. I ought to stress now that this is not politically correct humor. RedLetterMedia explains in an e-mail, “When I did the first review, the Star Trek: Generations one, I started to record it in my normal voice and it was just horrible and dull. So I decided to do it in character to make it more palatable, especially since my goal wasn’t to just give a cursory review, but rather to get really detailed. It is a massive amount of pointless nerd deconstruction so there has to be a ‘wink wink’ element to it. If you didn’t have some kind of humor with the material you’d come off as either someone with no life at all (which is true in my case) or someone who’s a big armchair critic that thinks he knows everything. The character adds a certain level of irony and fun to it . . . it goes back again to short films I used to make with my friend Rich, who has only ever portrayed Mr. Plinkett in the films. He does the voice as well, but I do it in the reviews.”


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Friday, Mar 12, 2010
Mass Effect 2 creates a well realized world that feels alive, even when we're not playing, by using only words.

Codices are nothing new in games. In fact, they’re quite old. They’re an effective tool of world building, allowing developers to explain traditions, cultures, technology, or other facts that would seem extraneous if forced into the main story. However, in Mass Effect 2, the codex is more than just a tome of fictionalized history. Such “extra information” is used to bring the world to life as well as to describe it.


Mass Effect 2 has an extensive codex, covering all the usual facts, but the actual sub-page on the main menu labeled “Codex” is just one part of a much larger well of extra information.


Tagged as: mass effect 2
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Thursday, Mar 11, 2010
But they're just toys. They fall to pieces, not into rotting corpses. It's all okay.

I have no problem with violence in video games. None. I know it’s pretend, I think it’s a ton of fun, and I shoot the hell out of digital human analogs on a pretty much daily basis. This post isn’t about that. It’s also not about hating on Toy Soldiers. In fact, I love the game and heartily recommend it to one an all. I like it more because it made me think about some kind of disturbing issues. I’m talking about using chemical weapons to kill masses of people. I’m also talking about gunning down hundreds of soldiers with concentrated machine-gun fire as they bravely charge out from the trenches. I’m talking about the worst horrors of World War I, only played out with virtual lead soldiers instead of virtual humans.


The Great War, or the War to End All Wars as it was once known, doesn’t get much attention in pop culture. There was those episodes of Young Indiana Jones that handled it pretty well and, of course, Gallipoli and All’s Quiet on the Western Front, but compared to World War II, it’s almost like a side show to history, the prequel to the big war story yet to come. I think that the reason for this is pretty clear: the trench warfare that typified the war just doesn’t have as many stories to tell. It’s always grim and static, with hopeless charges into enemy fire and clouds of poison gas choking the life out of our of helpless young men. It’s as grim as war gets, and while the horrors of WWII no doubt match them tragedy for tragedy, it was a war of movement and strategy. Or at least we see it that way. Plus, the Nazis were so damn evil that they have become undeniable, pure villains worth fighting. Most people don’t even really know what the hell World War I was all about.


Toy Soldiers captures much of this horror quite well. It is a game about chewing through wave after wave of enemy soldiers. The brief intros to each battle state only the basics: defend this, stop them, kill those. There’s no indication of why, nor does there need to be. The clockwork miniature men charge your position and die in droves. The game does the only thing that it can to make this fun to play, putting you, the player, in the role of building and operating the massive meat grinder. Your machine-gun nests, mortar positions, artillery pieces, and, yes, chemical weapons are all that stand between those metal bastards and your toy box.


The perversity of those poison gas attacks is what got me thinking a little more deeply about Toy Soldiers. It’s a weapon system with a very bad rep, the kind of thing that’s seen as the pinnacle of criminal warfare. It’s probably no worse for the victim than any number of things that a bullet can do to the body, but it seems much more indiscriminate and somehow cruel. It’s also not something that you see very often in games and not something that I’ve ever seen used as much as it is here, where you can see the toy men choking and gasping before expiring within the cloud of yellow-green death. But they’re just toys. They fall to pieces, not into rotting corpses. It’s all okay.


That, I think, is the brilliance of Toy Soldiers. They’ve managed to take the classic Tower Defense style gameplay and apply it to the only modern era war that makes sense to portray through this play style. World War I was all about static defense positions from which the boys fought off endless waves of enemies. However, a straight-forward simulation of the actual historical slaughterhouse would probably have had limited appeal. Even a jaded gamer like me might have gotten sickened just a little bit if the virtual doughboys dying on screen had been “real.” But they’re not real, they’re toys! So it’s cute fun, not horrible at all!


This is a perfect example of why game violence shouldn’t be mistaken for real violence. The Toy Soldiers version of war adds an extra layer of metaphor to disguise the real world horrors, but the fact is that all games are just toys. Thus, Toy Soldiers works as a lovely example of how players perceive violence in all types of games. We know it’s an abstraction of a type present in games like Risk, Stratego, and chess. The difference between Toy Soldiers and Modern Warfare 2 really just comes down to the difference between G.I. Joe and Playmobil. One is more “realistic” than the other, but in the end, they’re both just toys and it’s all a game that we’re playing.


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